Local pilot takes part In Canine Flight

Published 1:42 pm Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In the New Orleans, La. shelter, it is loud.

Dogs bark frantically, cats meow plaintively. The cages are small and there is no air conditioning. Every animal there is on a deadly schedule – even though they don’t know it.

 Shelters have very limited budgets, limited supplies and personnel. As a result – animals there have limited time. After some set number of days, they are “put to sleep” as the expression goes. Some are given lethal injections, and in some places the by-product of the internal combustion engine is used to snuff out their lives. For the latter, they are taken from the cage, put into a small space, then they hear an engine start. As carbon monoxide fumes overwhelm them, they slowly go still and die.

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 That must have been what it felt like this particular morning. But it would not end that way – at least not for one lucky group of canines.

 Morning came slowly Saturday in New Orleans. The dark of the sky held on as long as it could before surrendering to the sun. In shelters all across the region, animals were awakened early and stuffed into cages, then loaded into vehicles for a trip.

 It must have been terrifying for them – not knowing what was happening. But this journey was not to eternal darkness – either by the sharp jab of a needle, or the shattering roar and foul smell of the carbon-monoxide producing engine.

 Instead, 162 dogs from across the area were brought to New Orleans Lakefront Airport, where a veritable armada of aircraft waited. Planes large and small were arriving, while more sat waiting on the tarmac to take the dogs on a fantastic flight.

 They came in cars, vans and in trucks. All 162 were in for the adventure of a lifetime – and a real-life flight to life. Many were orphaned by the stresses of the recent oil spill, others by the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina, and some were simply abandoned by previous owners.

 The organizers of this improbable rescue mission in the sky were Jon Wehrenerg and Debi Boies – co-founders of the “Pilots N’ Paws” organization. Founded in February of 2008, the group matches up animals in need of rescue or transportation with pilots who volunteer their time, skills and aircraft to carry the lucky animals cross-country to new homes and new lives. The pilots donate their time, but are able to write off the expense of the flight against taxes at the end of the year.

 All 162 of the dogs transported Saturday morning are lucky – they all have people waiting for them on the far end of their journeys. Twenty-two planes took off from New Orleans Lakefront – ranging from a large Pilatus turbo-prop carrying 32 dogs to two planes carrying only two furry passengers.

 And how do the dogs take to the flights? “They usually go to sleep,” said Boies, adding with a wry smile, “but these wake up again.”

 As each plane is prepared to be loaded with dogs, a small group of mostly volunteer shelter workers bring them on leashes and in their arms across to the planes. Each animal enjoys a few more pats, an extra caress or two before being handed off to a pilot for loading.

 Many are moved in transport crates, while others are in screened off areas in the back of a place such as Kleinfeld’s. Letting go of their charges is not always easy for the shelter workers – many of whom have become attached to the animals in their care. At least one was tearful as she bid the dog good bye.

  The pilots work quickly – both to avoid stressing the frightened animals any more than necessary and to speed their take-offs. It is more pleasant to fly in the relative cool of the morning than the heat of the later day.

 The quiet morning sky was shattered by the roar of engines as the fleet of aircraft took off for various destinations, including Davenport, Iowa, Memphis, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Naples, Mariana and Lakeland, Fla.

 The rescue flights can be informal, where a pilot willing to fly contacts an owner or a rescuer and offers their services, or can be part of a major operation months in the making like Saturday’s flights – which took over three months to put together.

 In Picayune, local pilot Emil Kleinfeld is the only local member of the organization – joining up in November of 2008. Long before dawn Saturday morning, he was at the Picayune airport, making sure his Piper Cherokee was ready for the flight.

 In the days before the flight, he had taken out the rear seats of the small plane and made sure the fuel tanks were full.

 His passengers this day would be a small black Pomeranian and a fluffy white Maltese, both bound for Lakeland, Florida via Mariana, Fla.

 These were not his first transport animals, nor will they be his last. Many of the other pilots of the Pilots N’ Paws group share his enthusiasm. One brags at least 300 animals transported so far, and Boise says that there are no hard numbers available on how many animals the group has saved. “It’s thousands,” she says.

 It was with precisely that motivation that Kleinfeld got his aircraft loaded quickly and prepared to take off. In fact, his was the first plane destined for Mariana, Fla. to get into the air. The quick start didn’t mean he arrived first, however. In the air, his slower aircraft was overtaken by some of the others.

 He laughed to hear another pilot lamenting on the radio that “everybody’s faster than me”, when that other pilot’s plane was some 40 miles per hour faster than the little Piper Cherokee Kleinfeld flies.

 Onboard the plane, Kleinfeld’s two canine passengers seemed to take the flight in stride, alternately laying quietly in the rear of the plane and coming to stand behind the seats to sniff the hands of the pilots and try to see what was going on.

 At airports along the route, the convoy in the sky created some curiosity, too. Air traffic controllers at various fields along the route kept asking on the radio, “What’s going on in Mariana – some kind of air show?” The questions prompted laughter on board the aircraft, and a quick explanation of the flight.

 When Kleinfeld’s plane landed in Mariana some two and a half hours later, the dogs on board seemed to know it was time to deplane – and they started barking excitedly and rushed to get out of the plane. They strained at their leashes to get to the grass where they could relieve themselves and socialize with some of the other dogs also changing planes there.

 Each new plane load of dogs was met by smiling pilots as they landed to hand off their passengers for the next leg of their journeys.

 There is an old expression – unexpected things can happen “when pigs fly”. Well, pigs don’t fly, but 162 dogs did – with human pilots – to new lives.